Dartmouth professor, author argues Ken Lewis destroyed Bank of America
Bank of CEO Ken Lewis from a lot of people these days. Add to the list Sydney Finkelstein. He specializes in businsess leadership at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. Sydney Finkelstein specializes in business leadership. He wrote an article last week for Forbes magazine called Why Ken Lewis Destroyed Bank of America . Finkelstein says Lewis had a strong record until the purchase of the investment firm Merrill Lynch. In this segment, he tells WFAE's Scott Graf why that purchase changed everything.
Sydney Finkelstein: It just didn't make a lot of sense to me why someone with that track record of doing deals, doing mergers and acquisitions and being successful with them in the banking industry, went off and did a very very different acquisition like Merrill Lynch fraught with huge huge risk."
cott Graf: And even though Lewis had orchestrated some very successful take-over's like Fleet Boston and MBNA prior to the take-over, you say he was not prepared to take over the Merrill deal. Why not?"
Finkelstein: Well there are two or three things. As the deal unfolded it was clear that most of the due diligence was being done over a weekend, when the pressure was on to do a deal. For anyone with experience doing acquisitions, due diligence is a critical, critical, factor. Some of the sub-prime and toxic assets that have been discovered, I don't think, were fully understood at the time. The second reason is that this acquisition of Merrill Lynch is very different than any of the previous ones that Bank of America had done, or that Ken Lewis had led. Other acquisitions had a very clear playbook. The playbook was about buying another bank, cutting costs, consolidating branches if need be, and looking for opportunities to really lower your costs. Merrill Lynch is a completely different ball of wax, where virtually none of those key success factors are actually relevant to making Merrill Lynch work. Those two reasons really jumped out and said, 'There's something going on here that doesn't make a lot of sense.'
Graf: In your article for Forbes.com you mentioned that emotions can sometimes get in the way of these Fortune 500 CEO's when they're making deals. Do you feel like that was the case with the Bank of America takeover, Ken Lewis, and the Merrill deal?"
Finkelstein: First of all, I'll say what we know from neuroscience, and a lot of other research including some of my own research in my book, Think Again. It's clear that people tend to make decisions on the basis of emotional factors as much as, if not more, than rational factors. That's a bit of a surprise for those who think CEOs and other leaders in organizations are critical thinkers and rational. They sure try to be, but the reality is we have some powerful emotions that play a big role. I think that's clearly what happened here."
Graf: The knock on Ken Thompson at Wachovia was that he made one deal too many - that being the Golden West purchase from, I believe, three years ago. Does that make it more surprising to you that Lewis and BofA went ahead with the Merrill purchase knowing what they knew at the time about Thompson and Golden West at Wachovia?
Finkelstein: You would think, certainly, that what was discovered out of Golden West - toxic assets and other mortgage problems there - maybe should have had an effect. My own experience working with CEO's and doing research on senior executives, is that for the most part senior executives don't believe that the problems that have happened to other companies will happen to them. They have consistently told me, 'well we're different, this situation is different.' I didn't talk to Ken Lewis about this, so I can't tell you he said that, but it wouldn't surprise me to know that he was fully aware of Wachovia and thought, 'this is just going to be very different.'"
Graf: Is it a foregone conclusion that Ken Lewis will not be with Bank of America much longer, in your opinion?"
Finkelstein: In my view I don't see how he can stay on. The board has been extremely patient. Perhaps they're thinking, 'Who can get us out of this mess? We don't have anyone else on the bench' - which is a pretty big problem if that's the case. I think too much water has passed under the bridge. I think for Ken Lewis, it's going to be very tough to hold onto that CEO job.
Graf: What do you see happening at Bank of America with the bank as a whole?
Finkelstein: If you look at business history and recent history in financial services, you see that most companies and banks that have expanded into a very diversified portfolio of assets - the so-called 'supermarket of banking' - have not fared well. It tends to go fine for a while when the economy is good, but when things turn in the other direction it's a very tough strategy to execute on. I would not be optimistic. In fact, I'd be very surprised if Bank of America looks anything close to what it does today, six months or a year from now.